I know you’ve written about lightbulbs before, but it seems like there are lots of new options on store shelves. Are incandescents even being sold anymore? And what about LED lights? I tried some a few years ago and, in addition to being hella expensive, the light they gave off was cold and blue and institutional -- I couldn’t stand it. Are there other low-energy varieties? Which kinds of bulbs work with dimmers? Can you -- ahem -- shed some light on this confusing subject?
Liza E. Battle Creek, Mich.
A. Dearest Liza,
Thanks for reminding me that it’s time for our semi-demi-hexi-annual revisitation of the lightbulb topic. And what better day than Earth Day to undertake this quest? For years, “change a lightbulb” has been cited as a simple step people can take to help the planet. Now even that command is starting to feel complicated, a state of affairs that does not help our cause.
But I promise it’s not really as complicated as all that. For those with short attention spans, the answer is: Go buy LEDs.
Spring cleaning time! Here are a few quick and dirty questions that have been lingering in my inbox. Hope this helps -- keep ’em coming!
Do you have any suggestions for the best way to get my eyeglass lenses clean?
A. Dearest Monique,
I have the perfect eco-solution for you. It is called: Your Breath and a Swipe of Your Shirt. Yes, you will look a bit like your high-school algebra teacher, but it gets the job done. If that doesn’t appeal, might I suggest our old friend white vinegar. Seriously, people, there is nothing white vinegar cannot do. Dab a little on your lenses, wipe with a soft cloth, and enjoy the streak-free shine.
Q. Dear Umbra,
Do Barbie dolls and accessories contain BPA?
Janie Wayzata, Minn.
A. Dearest Janie,
When I was growing up, a Fisk hound chewed the legs off my favorite Barbie. Did he ingest Bisphenol A along with those deliciously petite feet? I asked the good folks at Mattel, who would say only that the materials they use are "considered safe by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission." It does appear that Barbies are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is worrisome. Longtime readers will recall my firm rule -- “No on vinyl, and that’s final” -- and this overview gives a sense of the global uprising against PVC. A better choice would be to buy or make toys that don’t contain any plastic at all. Healthier for the children in your life, healthier for the planet -- and healthier for the occasional overzealous canine.
My wife and I are in the market for a new car. We've been looking at several options and are finally leaning toward a small vehicle that gets decent miles per gallon. Which makes me ask a few questions: Is it more important to get a hybrid for the mileage or should people be really concerned about emissions? Are hybrids and PZEVs [partial-zero emissions vehicles] equally good choices? And is it better to buy a car from a company that offers a majority of its models with a PZEV rating, or from a company that makes hybrids, but also manufactures some of the largest-consuming vehicles on the market?
A. Dearest Ryan,
How I love these simple questions. Obviously the answer is clear: Don’t buy a car!
OK, OK, every time I make such a utopian suggestion, readers across the country hasten to point out that where they live, cars are a necessity. If that’s the case for you -- perhaps the Constantia subway system is not what it might be -- I still hope you will try to drive your new car as little as possible. Walk, ride a bike, carpool, bundle your errands. Driving is responsible for 10 percent of climate emissions [PDF], or maybe 15 percent, and American drivers are responsible for nearly half of that. Besides the climate impact, driving pollutes our air, increases our isolation, and hurts our health. We should endeavor to drive less, no matter where we live.
End of rant, Ryan, and beginning of answers. Let’s start with a little refresher on automotive terms:
A hybrid car runs on a combination of gas and electric power. Most hybrids typically get 45 to 55 miles per gallon, compared to an average of 29 mpg for conventional cars. (That average for conventional cars is set to rise to 35 mpg by 2016 and 54 mpg by 2025.) Typically hybrids cost roughly $5,000-$7,000 more than their gas counterparts, but much of that is recouped in fuel savings.
A PZEV is a partial-zero emissions vehicle. These cars use regular gas, but their tailpipe emissions are 90 percent cleaner than a typical car thanks to whizbang technology related to their catalytic converters. They also have zero evaporative emissions, which are the vapors that can escape from a fuel system. Most of the major car companies make PZEV versions of regular models (e.g., the Ford Focus PZEV), which typically get about the same mileage and sell for just a bit more ($200 or so) than the regular version.
Originally available only in California and the Northeast, PZEVs are beginning to pop up all over the place. In fact, we have California to thank for a soup of “EV” options, including ULEV (ultra-low-emission), SULEV (super-ultra-low-emission), ZEV (zero-emission), and SWTULEV (super-wicked-totally-ultra-low-emission). I might or might not have made that last one up.
Still with me? Try this on for size: Many hybrids are PZEVs, but not all PZEVs are hybrids. Now that our heads are properly spinning, let us tackle your questions.
This might sound a little out there, but whenever I think about climate change, I picture us all ending up on a planet like Tatooine. Hot as hell, two suns, broken dreams and unhappy people all around. Am I just getting carried away here, or does Star Wars have some lessons to offer us?
Jim R. Rutland, Vt.
A. Dearest Jim,
Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, and then someone like you comes along to ask if we can learn anything from a galaxy far, far away. I suspect my knowledge of the planetary system of Star Wars does not hold a candle to yours, but I don’t mind taking a break from the problems of this galaxy to explore another one. Luckily I also have a couple of experts in the family Fisk to whom I can turn for guidance.
Isn’t it remarkable how science fiction offers such fascinating ideas for surviving brutal, apocalyptic situations? For decades, imaginative writers have put forth super-creative notions that really might be worth a closer look, especially as we creep closer to our own climate apocalypse. In fact, some of the boldest geoengineering concepts out there seem like they are straight out of a sci-fi novel. It’s a fine line, I suppose, which may be why many people cast aspersions on that field. (Then again, I know others who are fully convinced that cloud-seeding will save us.)
But back to Star Wars. The more I poke around, the more I think the planetary lessons on offer are a bit grim.
I defer to your sage advice in many matters and often wonder at the minutiae laid at your feet. How silly to agonize over bra stuffing when climate change is poised to make my home here in Florida the next Atlantis. However, here I am, agonizing over the small: I love insects. They are resilient, organized, fascinating, beautiful -- and I want to wear them. I've been looking at stunning butterfly wing jewelry and I just have to have it. But I don't wear fur or feathers on the grounds that the creatures may have been treated badly. Is it hypocritical to not extend this ethic to insects? Or by showcasing the beauty of bugs can I help others see their value and importance?
A. Dearest Anastasia,
In one sense, you’re absolutely right that it’s silly to fret over the little things. But it’s also a bit comforting, isn’t it? One can lose plenty of sleep over climate change, but the problem remains unsolved the next day. Put enough energy into your butterfly-wing dilemma, though, or any of a thousand other tiny problems, and sooner or later you will decide upon a course of action you can feel good about. Sometimes it’s nice to feel that we have some control in our lives, that we can solve problems and change habits and make the tiniest ripple in the world. It’s just the over-fretting we need to be careful about. We mustn’t tie ourselves in knots.
As for the insect-ethics question, I am very interested to know what your fellow readers think. You probably know that many vegans avoid insect-originating products such as silk and honey. But how far should this careful consideration extend? I have used high-falutin’ technology to create a poll:
I wear jeans a lot, practically every day. When my jeans get a hole I patch them and wear them in the garden. But eventually they get too holey to wear even in the garden. What can I do with my old jeans rather than throw them out? Jeans don't make good cleaning or pee rags like my worn-out cotton T-shirts. Can I send them someplace to be used as insulation for houses? Any other ideas would be appreciated.
Judith M. Highlands Ranch, Colo.
A. Dearest Judith,
Jeans as pee rags seems like a new torture method. Let’s not go there.
Another thought: Since you’re into gardening, you could use your old jeans to make kneepads -- which would protect subsequent pairs of jeans. You can also compost fabric, though it can take awhile to break down. Needless to say, crafty ideas abound for reusing denim -- take a look at this list, for starters. Some of the items are in-jean-ious, and some will make you look like you stepped out of a Charlie’s Angels episode. I shall let you decide what suits you best.
I am an up-and-coming millennial looking at this world and I often wonder -- is there hope for us on this planet? I realize this is a loaded question, but I was after your honest opinion as someone who has been at this longer than me and might have seen a few things. Thank you.
LL Boston, Mass.
A. Dearest LL,
Might have seen a few things? Why just this morning I saw a pair of wild turkeys walking down the middle of the street as if they owned the place. But those are probably not the things you mean.
I appreciate loaded questions, especially from up-and-coming millennials such as yourself. Now for my little secret: I am by nature hopeful. I have to be, since I spend my days encouraging people to make greener choices and be wiser citizens of the planet. If I thought they weren’t following through, or that their personal and political actions didn’t matter, my entire reason for being would evapotranspirate, wouldn’t it? Nobody wants to see what I look like as a vapor.
Recently, as my son was doing his homework, he asked, "Dad, who is Rachel Carson?" I gave a brief biography, then asked why he wanted to know. His worksheet for health class included a question about Carson's role in the EPA's decision to ban DDT. My son's teacher had told the class to skip that question "because she was just a crazy lady." My sputtering and fuming induced my son to say that he was sorry he had asked. He expressly forbid me from sitting in on this teacher's class, or doing anything that might make her grade him unfairly. So what can I do? This teacher, who also teaches American history, has crossed a line that I cannot accept.
Andrew E. Skamokawa, Wash.
A. Dearest Andrew,
As a fan of facts in general, I understand your sputtering. But as you might know, your son’s teacher is not alone in her opinion of Carson, whose Silent Spring transformed how the public regarded the risks of pesticides. Attacks on Carson began the moment the bookwas published in 1962, and haven’t stopped since. These days, they are primarily based on the notion that she is responsible for the banning of DDT, a chemical her (mostly conservative) critics believe could have prevented millions of malaria-related deaths. The full story is rather more nuanced than that, of course. I encourage you and your son to read this helpful account or this one for a little more information about why Carson has become a bit of a lightning rod.
But your question is whether you should rush over to your son’s school, Birkenstocks a-flappin’, and demand to know why his teacher is filling the heads of the Skamokawa youth with lies, damn lies. I say not so fast.
You have done the most important thing, which is to give your son the facts.
I am in search of a non-toxic ball for my 14-month-old daughter. Any ideas?
Drea T. Falls Church, Va.
A. Dearest Drea,
Thanks to you, some dusty old lyrics have been bouncing through my head for several days: “The mornin’ sun is shining like a red rubber ball.” Those who don’t know this song should not investigate further. Trust me, it will worm its way into your brain and never, ever leave.
You don’t say what sort of ball you’re looking for, Drea -- a small one for your toddler to hold and toss, a medium-size one that she can kick around, or an oversized one for hee-hee-it’s-bigger-than-me antics. Whichever your goal, I do know how challenging it can be to find products that are safe for the junior set. It is a cruel truth of our modern age that most toys contain toxic substances even though our children are especially vulnerable to such things. We know that young children, especially, tend to put everything in their mouths, yet we casually hand them items that can contain lead, mercury, BPA, and other things one would not normally choose to suck on. (Even toys intended for oral use, like plastic teethers, are often not suitable for that purpose -- best to look for alternative materials.)
So I applaud you for making the effort to seek out safer toys, and I encourage you to keep at it, even when it feels harder than cutting a tooth. Support companies that offer healthy options, but just as important, tell the companies that do peddle toxic toys why you won’t be buying their products. We know the almighty dollar speaks, whether it is spent or unspent.
But here I am blathering away, and your 14-month-old is tugging at you with a repeated, “Ba? Ba? Ba?” So let’s get down to it:
We are looking for an eco-friendly gift for our employees. Leaning toward some type of reusable travel mug, we need help deciding on the best option. If we had our way, this product would be made locally or at least in the USA; have the lowest carbon footprint of the available materials (stainless steel, plastic, glass, aluminum, ceramic, etc.); be recyclable; and be affordable. We would like to stay away from plastic if we can, but if the science points us in that direction, we would consider it. I’m having problems locating a stainless steel version of what we are looking for made in the U.S.A.
A. Dearest Laura,
How lovely to hear from a company that is putting so much thought into rewarding its employees, and doing it in an eco-friendly way. What if I told you I had identified the perfect gift, one with zero manufacturing impacts and universal appeal?
I’m talking, of course, about the gift of time. Could you give your employees a day off, or even a half-day, or the option to save commuting time by working from home once in a while? If that’s not feasible, what if you put your mug money into gift certificates for experiences, like a massage or a movie or a nice dinner out? You could build a little menu of options -- employee recognition a la carte.
“They” say the best things in life are not things, and I think that is especially true in this case. Your employees, while no doubt touched by the sentiment behind the mug (and they would be even more touched if they knew how hard you were working to sustainably source these gifts), might well want something else. Mightn’t they?
I hope you understand that my comments are made in the spirit of creativity, not crankery. What you really want is mug information, and mug information I shall provide.